Looking back at David Cronenberg's The Fly

Feature Ryan Lambie 19 Nov 2012 - 14:35

Our odyssey through the works of David Cronenberg continues, with his 1986 horror masterpiece, The Fly...

The years between 1983 and 1985 saw David Cronenberg in something of a paradox. The success of his earlier movies, including his adaptation of The Dead Zone, had earned him a deserved reputation as a filmmaker on the rise. Yet while all kinds of offers were coming in from Hollywood - most wildly unsuitable, such as Beverly Hills Cop, some potentially extraordinary, such as Return Of The Jedi and Top Gun - the director found himself embroiled in the development hell of Total Recall.

Having written several drafts of the Total Recall script, and even paying visits to Rome and Tunisia to scout locations,  the production suddenly fell apart. With neither Cronenberg nor producer Dino De Laurentiis willing to budge over which version of the script to film - De Laurentiis and co-producer famously wanted "Raiders Of The Lost Ark go to Mars", while Cronenberg wanted a story about "memory, identity and madness" - the pair ultimately agreed to go their separate ways.

With Total Recall by the wayside, Cronenberg suddenly found himself in Los Angeles without a film to make. "I was in dire straits financially," the director recalled in the book Cronenberg On Cronenberg. "I was just hoping that somehow something would happen that would be honourable, a movie that I could be really happy doing."

At the same time, producers Stuart Cornfield and Mel Brooks were looking to remake The Fly, a George Langelaan short story originally made into a movie in 1958. Where the original was a critically and financially well-received tale about a scientist who swapped heads with a fly while experimenting with a matter transporter, the new version, as written by screenwriter Charles Edward Pogue, imagined the fusion of man and insect as slow and insidious, like a disease gradually strangling the humanity out of its luckless protagonist.

"My God, the writer has really rethought and reunderstood it" was Cronenberg's reaction on reading Pogue's script. Although Cronenberg wasn't happy with all of it ("I thought the characters were awful, the dialogue trite and the ending bad"), he immediately saw how it would fit with his "body-oriented, very body-conscious" style of filmmaking.

This would explain why, in the mid-80s, Cronenberg embarked on his first studio picture, and his first (and so far only) remake. The result was an almost perfect marriage of drama and extreme gore, and the director's greatest box-office success.

"When I was a kid, I puked on my tricycle"

The Fly is a dream that becomes a nightmare. Its first shot is of Jeff Goldblum's scientist, Jeff Goldblum, and it's one of the most important in the film. His eyes are wide with enthusiasm as he talks about a mysterious new invention to Ronnie (Geena Davis) - whom he doesn't yet realise is a journalist working for a science magazine called Particle.

Having managed to impress Ronnie just enough to coax her back to his flat (which happens to double as his lab), Brundle excitedly introduces his top-secret project: a matter transporter, which uses a pair of hulking metal pods connected to a computer to shift objects from one side of the room to another. As the import of the transporter dawns on Ronnie - it would mean the end of public transport, for one thing - she also realises that she's onto the biggest story of her career.

Brundle, anxious to keep his project under wraps until it's properly finished, promises Ronnie the full story if she'll document his progress; although the transporter can readily move inanimate objects through space, it has the alarming habit of scrambling the DNA of living creatures in transit, leaving them as little more than screeching pools of blood and organs at their final destination.

Ronnie agrees, and the pair embark on both a love affair which feeds into the science project itself: Brundle's apparent sexual awakening inspires him to find a new way to program the pods to transport living things.

But when jealousy and distrust rears its ugly head, tragedy beckons; Brundle, convinced that Ronnie's spent the night with her editor and former lover Stathis (a deliciously sleazy John Getz), he drunkenly shuts himself into a telepod - not realising that a humble housefly has hitched a ride along with him...

"It can't work with the flesh"

Although ostensibly a sci-fi movie, The Fly is equally a relationship drama - a romance which, as Cronenberg has often stated, ends in tragedy, as all romances must. At first, Brundle's infusion of insect DNA leaves him galvanised, like an athlete on a performance enhancing drug; he chatters incessantly, snacks on candy bars, performs extraordinary feats of gymnastic agility using conveniently-placed water pipes - and, to Ronnie's bemusement, his expanded stamina also extends to the bedroom.

Gradually, however, the fly's DNA begins to manifest itself as a disease. Skin disorders rapidly give way to the gooey loss of teeth and fingernails, and Brundle's increasing anger and paranoia drives a wedge between he and Ronnie.

As reality dawns on Brundle - that he's in the rapid process of turning into something entirely other - his explanation to Ronnie is perfectly crystalised in one perfectly written line: "I'm saying I was an insect who dreamt he was a man, and loved it. But now the dream is over, and the insect is awake. I'm telling you I'll hurt you if you stay."

"Be afraid. Be very afraid"

Part of the reason The Fly works so well - and was so popular with audiences - is that it balances its generic elements and tones so precisely. Brundle and Ronnie's characters are brought to life by some spectacular performances from Goldblum and Davis (who were a real life couple at the time). Their characters are tender, flawed and quirky, and provide the film with a rock-solid dramatic core.

The tragedy and melancholy of Brundle's decay - and Ronnie's anguish as she watches her lover fall apart within a matter of days - is offset by Cronenberg's appetite for graphic excess, which includes hideous fly mutations, maggot birth nightmares, inside-out baboons, and hands and feet melting under gallons of insect vomit. As a showcase for outlandish special effects, The Fly is second only to Videodrome, and while Chris Walas' special make-up effects lack the finesse of Rick Baker's for Videodrome, they're perfectly grotesque, and rightly won an Oscar in 1986.

Incredibly, The Fly was even gorier in an earlier, pre-release cut. Scenes involving a half-cat, half-baboon mutation, which Brundle is forced to beat to death with an iron bar, were removed from the final film, as was a sequence in which Brundle bites off a leg-like appendage which emerges from his torso. A concluding scene where Ronnie gives birth to a butterfly (a dream sequence mirroring the one in which she gave birth to a maggot earlier in the film) was also trimmed.

Even in the final edit, The Fly remains one of the ooziest and grotesque films of Cronenberg's career - and as always, there's the sense that a wickedly dry humour is operating behind these button-pushing scenes. Whether it's Brundle squeezing the pus from a decomposing fingertip, or an arm snapping at the wrist during an arm-wrestling match, it's easy to imagine Cronenberg's private glee at just how comically repulsive these sequences are.

This drily black sense of humour is rarely discussed in interviews, yet it's undoubtedly there; how else can we explain the fantastic moment where Brundle pukes on a stack full of donuts before he consumes them? Or the part where the Brundlefly comes smashing through the window of an abortion clinic, and carries Ronnie off into the night like a true B-movie monster? And lest we forget, this most tragic of horror movies ends with an exploding head - detonated by a shotgun blast from a weeping Ronnie, wailing at the loss of her beloved.

"Is this how it starts? Am I dying?"

It's this collision of tones, perhaps, which makes The Fly one of Cronenberg's most satisfying movies, and one worth returning to time and again. Its themes of death and disease are often discussed - and it's frequently described as an Aids allegory, which is something Cronenberg refutes - but like all great films, it operates on several levels at once.

It's a romance, a tragedy, and an engrossing analysis of gender politics. It's notable that, for all his charisma, Brundle is just as flawed and shambling a man as oleaginous editor, Stathis; in fact, as Brundle decays, Stathis gradually comes to the fore as the film's other male lead, as we learn that, beneath his leering exterior lurks a quite lonely man who genuinely pines for Ronnie's attention.

In fact, Ronnie is the only character in The Fly who comes away with their dignity intact. Brundle is brought low not by messing with forbidden science, so much as his own insecurity and recklessness. Stathis, meanwhile, has his vanity and obsession rewarded with a missing hand and foot, and what will presumably be an expensive few months in post-traumatic therapy.

The Fly is frequently described as Cronenberg's most mainstream movie - largely because it made so much money ($60 million on a $9 million budget). In reality, The Fly is no less uncompromising or complex than any of Cronenberg's other movies - he simply hit upon a way of presenting his pet themes in a way audiences happened to find palatable.

It's probably no coincidence that his next film, Dead Ringers, was so thematically similar, presenting as it did two men (one quiet and scientific, the other outgoing and carnal) and their psychological disintegration over their love of an independent-minded woman.

The Fly represented a turning point in Cronenberg's career. With this final gout of goo and degradation, he began to explore his ideas with ever more restraint. While his subsequent themes undeniably feature flashes of violence, special effects and occasional strange mutations, they'd never be in evidence to quite the same degree again.

The reason for this, perhaps, is because, after more than a decade of experimentation, he'd created his horror masterpiece. Elements of The Fly can be seen in everything, from his early short films, via his debut feature Shivers, right up to the doomed relationships in Videodrome and The Dead Zone, but it's his 1986 film which expresses those ideas most clearly, and most poignantly.

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